DC Winter Plan for Homeless Families a Big Question Mark

It’s hard to think about freezing cold weather these days. But the District of Columbia Interagency Council on Homelessness has to because it’s legally required to have a plan for the upcoming winter season by September 1.

The annual Winter Plan is supposed to spell out how the District will meet its legal obligation to provide everyone shelter from “severe weather conditions.” For the winter season, this means temperatures at or below 32 degrees, including wind chill factor.

Shelter capacity is thus a key part of the plan. And it’s always a challenge. How many people will need protection from the elements? How will the District provide it?

The ICH Operations and Logistics Committee has made considerable progress in planning for individual homeless men and women, i.e., those who don’t have children with them.

We look at this year’s draft Winter Plan, and we again see specific facilities identified, with bed capacities totaling projected needs based on last winter’s highest demands.

In one respect, Operations and Logistics has also made progress on planning for homeless families. Thanks to some expert help, it has — for the first time — an analytically-sophisticated projection of need.

Or rather, projections, since Operations and Logistics didn’t settle on which to use for predicting how many more families will have no safe place to stay unless the District provides it.

If the increase were 23% — the same as last year’s — the District would need to place 626 families between the beginning of November and the end of March. If it were 30%, the number would rise to 662.

That’s a lot of families to place, even at the low end. And here’s where the draft Winter Plan comes up woefully short — as it has in the past, but in a different and more disturbing way.

Specifically, the draft doesn’t tell us what we’d need to know to assess plans for capacity.

Nothing the Operations and Logistics Committee can do about this. The Department of Human Services is responsible for deciding where families will be placed.

It’s decided that 118 units at DC General — the main emergency shelter for families — will be held in reserve. This apparently assumes they’ll be vacant by November. Most weren’t, as of the first of this month.

The draft plan nevertheless provides for only 153 shelter units. And they’ll all be occupied when the winter season officially begins, it says.

So DHS may have to place at least 473 — and perhaps as many as 509 — families some place other than DC General.

These are actually fairly conservative estimates. Projections distributed at a selective public comments session show that the figure could be as high as 557.

The draft says that “the District government will rely on housing placements.” According to Fred Swann, head of the Family Services Administration, these are mostly rapid re-housing placements.

In other words, families will be given housing subsidies for four months, renewable at quarterly intervals if the parents are behaving themselves, i.e., being good tenants and complying with self-sufficiency plans developed for them.

The draft plan, however, doesn’t say how many families DHS will place in this sort of subsidized housing. Understandably perhaps because we’ve reasons to doubt whether it actually can rely principally on housing placements.

It’s been managing a rapid re-housing program since late 2009. It’s never rapidly re-housed nearly so many families as it would have to if the draft Winter Plan projections are anywhere in the ballpark.*

The program itself raises another issue. At this point, families don’t qualify unless they can show that they’ll be able to “obtain and/or maintain stable housing” when their subsidies expire. Draft rules say that would be at the end of a year.

How many newly-homeless families will be just temporarily down on their luck? Won’t many, as in the past, have become homeless due to persistent problems, e.g., chronic unemployment or underemployment, combined with the growing shortage of affordable housing here?

Well, the draft plan says that DHS will place families in the 118 vacant units at DC General and/or in motel rooms if it can’t match its 2011-12 placement rate. It doesn’t tell us what that is. (See note at the end.)

We need to worry about the fudging — even more perhaps than overly-ambitious housing plans in the past — because DHS could well face a large funding shortfall for its homeless services program.

At this point, it has $7 million less than it had last year because it no longer has leftover federal funds awarded for other programs that it can transfer.

Federal funding for the upcoming fiscal year is iffy — not only because of the pending across-the-board cuts, but because Congressional leaders have decided to put off final decisions on a budget.

DHS has already indicated that it will eliminate or cut back a range of homeless services — including half the beds it’s been providing for homeless men and women — if the “lost” $7 million isn’t replaced.

And they won’t be unless future revenue projections aren’t at least this much higher than the projection the District’s new budget was built on. The last projection didn’t free up even one dollar for the Council’s contingency funding list.

What if DHS has to place — and keep — a significant number of families into motel rooms, as it did last winter? The DC Fiscal Policy Institute estimates the monthly costs at $3,000 per family.

Has DHS budgeted for this? Or will we find out that there’s virtually nothing left to help homeless people come April?

* DHS now has 150 families in apartments subsidized by its rapid re-housing program. I’m told it took 10 months to place them all.

17 Responses to DC Winter Plan for Homeless Families a Big Question Mark

  1. Sylvia Randolph says:

    Just as you have written a blog for the DC Winter plan, thats all they are doing as wel,l writing a plan with not outcomes. Explain to me why Fred Swan the head of the DHS would deny someone the opportunity to support themselves through education and career developement.

  2. Sylvia Randolph says:

    If lets say for theoretical resons, DC does not have the fund to place single persons yet are findig the funds to house families. I am all for that, lets say hypothetically that there is a plan in place that gives the single person the opportunity to surcome there homeless circimstance by given opprotunity? I.e. education and job training. We have to let go of the Master Slave mentality of the homnelessness and understand the it as a social ill that has an answer to it’s problems, those answeres can be met by several means of Goverment, State, Non for profit, business and advocacy. I would guarantee to say that if asked by any one the written process of ending homlessness exclusive of means to betters ones own situation is wated goveerment funds. With out the ability to better an individuale problem wher in which the problem can be fixed in foolishness. And we will be discussing in another 3 decades of dependacy and homelessness asking the same remedial ? of food and shelter lack an void the problems. Self sufficency. Ask the one in the Experience who does not want to depend on the governmen and find homelessness and appauling expereicne and you will find the solution.

  3. Kathryn Baer says:

    I understand where you’re coming from, Sylvia. But the District doesn’t — and shouldn’t — choose between shelter and programs that help low-income people become self-sufficient. Both could be better. But we surely shouldn’t leave people exposed to cold weather and other dangers because they can’t afford rent.

    One plus for shelters and housing for homeless people is that they provide access to caseworkers. In the best of cases, the conferences lead to linkages to appropriate education and training programs. I don’t know enough to say how often this happens. I believe it’s something the District has in mind for the self-sufficiency plans my post refers to.

    Incidentally, the District will be funding shelter for single individuals as well as families this winter. The worry is whether it will have the funds to continue doing this when the winter season ends.

  4. dnilan says:

    Sounds like a train wreck in the making. But who cares about these families anyhow? Obviously they’re not on the DC priority list. And who, besides you, Kathryn, will be calling attention to this? I do agree with Sylvia’s point — these systems are often dysfunctional (to say the least) — but absent seismic change, we need something in place…before winter. NOW!

  5. Kathryn Baer says:

    Fortunately, Diane, the District has some very strong and well-informed advocates. The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless will be all over this issue, as they have been in the past. The DC Fiscal Policy Institute is following it too.

    One way or the other, the District will almost certainly meet its legal obligations to families this winter. The real concern is what happens when the season ends.

  6. […] with the short-shot homelessness prevention and temporary housing solutions the department still claims will significantly reduce pressures on DC General — the main […]

  7. […] I earlier wrote, the plan calls for leaving 118 units at DC General vacant unless and until DHS would otherwise […]

  8. […] account more than the projected $7 million shortfall — especially because we’ve got good reasons to believe that DHS won’t be able to carry out its plan for housing homeless families this […]

  9. […] Shouldn’t they, at the very least, have wanted to make sure that the emergency shelter and other services triggered by Hurricane Sandy didn’t leave the Department of Human Services even shorter on funds than it’s likely to be? […]

  10. lashawntay says:

    Is someone get terminated from the program is there away to get back in?

  11. Kathryn Baer says:

    I’m not clear on what you’re asking. Do you want to know if a family that’s been expelled from the shelter can get readmitted? Or does your question have to do with termination from the short-term housing program?

  12. […] ends, families with no place to stay will again be on their own, unless some of the units DHS originally planned to use this winter are […]

  13. […] insisted that it would have enough units there this winter — perhaps more than enough — because […]

  14. […] main reason is that its plans for rapid re-housing have run afoul of realities, including reluctance to accept a time-limited […]

  15. […] such figures for the latter last year. But we were able to back into a range of the number that would be needed because the Operations and Logistics Committee had gotten some expert help […]

  16. […] needs — for example, to decide that last year’s Winter Plan would assume use of barely more than half the units at DC General, the main shelter for homeless […]

  17. […] you may recall, DHS earlier gave us to understand that the program would largely solve the problems it’s faced providing shelter for homeless families when it’s legally […]

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